September 2002, Architecture

What Works, What Doesn’t

Master-planning Ground Zero makes the pragmatic Alexander Garvin a local lightning rod

Reviewing the first edition of Alexander Garvin’s book The American City: What Works, What Doesn’t six years ago, The New York Times hailed it as “an Encyclopedia Urbanica.” Newly reissued this summer, the already sweeping survey has been expanded to cover over 250 U.S. urban and suburban revitalization projects across the United States.

Now Garvin, a 61-year-old adjunct professor of urban planning at Yale University and a member of the New York City Planning Commission, is putting his expertise to the test at the world’s most closely watched construction site. As vice president for planning, design and development at the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation, Garvin is set to play a decisive role in whatever replaces the destroyed World Trade Center.

“Not since Robert Moses imposed his single-minded mark on the region decades ago,” The Daily News commented on his appointment last February, “has an individual been asked to lead the recreation of such a crucial swath of real estate.”

Garvin, seated in his cramped office next to the gaping hole where the twin towers once stood, grins at the comparison then brushes it aside. Since taking up his duties at LMDC, Garvin has been obliged to work in tandem with an extraordinary array of interest groups battling to influence what’s built on the contested spot. He also answers to multiple bosses from city and the state government, and for the moment at least, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, together with leaseholder and developer Larry Silverstein.

The public outcry against the LMDC’s first six masterplan proposals has already upended the planning process and may eventually eliminate the Port Authority’s influence. At the same time, this seems likely to give Garvin’s market-oriented approach to urban redevelopment greater sway. In his writings and in courses at Yale, Garvin argues that the best planning involves “public action that will produce a sustained and widespread private market reaction.” To be truly successful, according to Garvin, a planning initiative must alter the adjacent area as well. “If all you build is some office space and you’re not improving the surrounding community then you’ve failed,” he said in an interview, “no matter how many billions of dollars you’ve put in.”

Garvin has himself worked as developer and as a planning consultant for several cities including Charlotte, N.C., Baton Rouge, La., Palm Beach, Fla., Stanford, Ct. and Markham, Canada. In each case, he has advocated strategic public investments aimed at triggering a far more significant market response. “He looks at the tragedy of the World Trade Center as more than how to deal with a 16-acre Chinese puzzle and see how it relates to the economy, open space and the transit issues of the whole region,” says Rick Bell, executive director of the New York chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Rather than advocate any particular architectural approach, Garvin says he’s not interested whether a design is modernist or neo-traditional, but in whether it works. “I also care if it’s great — quality is what matters,” he quickly adds. “I’m not going to tell you that Rockefeller Center is better or worse than the Federal Center in Chicago by Mies. I’m very hopeful that whoever builds on this site is going to do something at least as good. It would not surprise me if a number of the world’s finest architects and some of the smaller firms around the world ended up doing individual buildings here.”

Stressing pragmatism, he continues, “The concern I have always is that it has to work. We have a train station there. We have subways there. We have to worry about buses and trucks and we have to move large number of people. We have to have a memorial. Whatever the schemes are have to take into account all those things.” But this nuts and bolts planning stance has sparked fears that compelling new architecture has little chance of arising on the trade center’s ruins. Despite his record as a foot soldier in the study of cities — Garvin personally took the hundreds of photographs illustrating the case studies in his 560-page book — is he enough of a risk taker to be a midwife to great design?

The terms of the LMDC’s request for proposals issued this spring, which favored established New York-based firms and raised concerns among some foreign observers. After hearing Garvin speak at an international conference in Lower Manhattan entitled “New York Talks to London and Berlin,” British architect Will Alsop, who helped draw up the new Jubilee Line of the London Underground, demurred, “I’ve never seen such a display of complacency in all my life.” Michael M’nninger, architecture critic of the German weekly Die Zeit, concluded that Garvin “totally refused to hear or learn anything from abroad.”

New York Gallery owner Max Protetch, who last January exhibited an array of proposals to rebuild at Ground Zero, termed Garvin “less open than I am to architecture that speaks for this particular moment in time.” Protetch said that when he and Garvin talked about the show — to go on view this month as the U.S. entry at the Venice Biennale for architecture — “Alex was clear that he judges architecture on built projects but did not seem to be open to people whose way of thinking speaks of this time unless he could see built examples. In situations like this, I don’t think you need that kind of proof. This is a moment when we have to reach out of those constraints.”

Billie Tsien, the sole architect on the LMDC board, countered in Garvin’s defense, “He’s under tremendous pressure. As a planner, he’s most excited about infrastructure,” she said, “but he’s a valiant warrior who does believe deeply in the importance of good design.” In the interview, Garvin expressed certainty there would be an international competition for the memorial, as well as for institutions like the proposed Museum of Freedom and Tolerance and individual buildings like a major new transit center. “I’m assuming that some of the greatest architectural talents in the world are going to have something to do with these things,” he said. “The trick here is to get a public realm that’s great, streets that are great, great squares.”

He further envisions that the central rail station for the area would be a 21st century variant of Grand Central Station. “I have always assumed we would have something quite grand, something akin to the Galleria in Milan with restaurants, movie theaters, stores and art galleries.” Garvin’s hope is that after the public spaces are created, individual blocks would become the purview of private developers hiring their own architects.

Garvin got the LMDC job just weeks after being touted as a lead candidate for the chairmanship of the New York City Planning Commission, of which he’s been a member for the past seven years. Garvin doesn’t hide his disappointment that Mayor Michael Bloomberg awarded the chairmanship to another commission member, Amanda Burden, but he’s still poised to have a strong hand in shaping a key component of New York’s future.

The son of Latvian-born refugees who fled to New York in 1939, Garvin studied architecture at Yale and traces his passion for planning to the moment when his college roommate gave him a copy of Jane Jacobs’ pioneering book The Death and Life of Great American Cities as a senior year Christmas gift. After graduation, he worked for Philip Johnson before joining the New York City Planning Department’s housing division.

More recently, as planning director for the drive to bring the 2012 Olympics to New York, Garvin drafted an innovative scheme locating nearly all the competition venues along two intersecting transportation axes to easily convey athletes around the city, while also using ferries and new infrastructure to revitalize the waterfront. The founder of the Olympics campaign, Daniel Doctoroff who is now deputy mayor for economic development, recruited Garvin to help devise a plan for the Games after coming across his book on cities at Barnes & Noble.

“He’s a hero for a lot of people,” the AIA’s Bell says of Garvin. “He’s not the effete Ivy League intellectual some people assume from looking at his bow ties. He cuts through smoke screens and is a navigator of bureaucracy.” Garvin counts among his former students Los Angeles city planning director Con Howe, former New York City Planning Commission chairman Joe Rose and The New Yorker’s architecture critic, Paul Goldberger. The most recent Yale Daily News Course critique gives his class “Introduction to the Study of the City” high ratings.

Although New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp has recently scorned Garvin for favoring a “New Urbanist retro theme park approach” at the World Trade Center site, Garvin’s supporters see the charge as unfounded. Garvin did work with New Urbanist Andres Duany in 1998 to draw up a new plan for Baton Rouge, but took a critical view in his latest edition of his book of the New Urbanist community of Kentlands, Virginia. “Alex is very much of an iconoclast,” says Carol Willis, an architectural historian and curator of the New York Skyscraper Museum. “It’s not easy to peg him as one thing or the other.” Municipal Arts Society President Kent Barwick concurred, “He’s not looking out for any particular school of thought, other than the genius of the place.”

In any case, avant garde creations by independent-minded practitioners hardly seem Garvin’s thing. This becomes clear when the subject turns to Rem Koolhaas, who teamed up with David Brody Bond and engineers Arup to vie in the Ground Zero master plan selection process earlier this summer. “I have great respect for him as a writer and as a thinker about cities,” Garvin said. Pausing to choose his words, he summed up what he wants to avoid at all costs. “This is not a project for Howard Roark, a sole artist who decides independent of the city and all its players what happens and then when the city disfigures the great artwork blows it up. We’ve had one tragedy already. We don’t need another one.”

Of course, knowing what he himself does not want and satisfying the popular clamor for bolder and more innovative designs are two different things. With a watchful public now placing extraordinary demands on the powers of architecture and planning, Garvin could well find that the lessons of reinventing downtown Manhattan warrant yet another edition of his book on cities — and what works and what doesn’t.